Presidents of Reed

Colin S. Diver’s speeches, letters, and articles

State of the College, September 18, 2006

Remarks of Reed College President Colin Diver

Dear Alumni, Parents, and Friends of Reed,

"U.S. higher education needs to improve in dramatic ways. . . . American higher education has become . . . increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy."

Secretary's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, Final Report, July 2006.

Thus begins the report of a blue-ribbon committee convened by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to assess the performance of America's colleges and universities. There follow 20 pages of findings and recommendations that urge all of us associated with higher education to shape up, or get trampled in the rush of global competition. [The entire report is online.]

From the privileged vantage point of Reed College, it would be easy to dismiss the Spellings report as alarmist, political, and insensitive to the rich variety of American higher education. The report has received sharp criticism from many educators, including former University of Wisconsin Chancellor David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, and the sole commissioner who refused to sign the report.

Nevertheless, we should read the report with interest because in its tone and content it exemplifies a growing skepticism of our vaunted claims of accomplishment and excellence. So, it seems appropriate to devote this, my annual letter to the Reed community, to confronting the Spellings Commission's critique of higher education. In particular, I address five criticisms that seem most directly relevant to an institution like Reed.

1. "The Commission notes with concern the seemingly inexorable increase in college costs, which have outpaced inflation for the past two decades and made affordability an ever-growing worry for students, families, and policymakers."

Nostra culpa. Over the past decade, the Reed College tuition has increased from $22,180 to $34,300. That's a nominal increase of 55% and an inflation-adjusted increase of 22%. And that's just the price. The cost of a Reed education (what we spend per student per year on the educational program, excluding living expenses and financial aid) is now $36,726, up 78% in 10 years (40% in real terms).

Why is this happening? A major reason is the fact that education is subject to a higher rate of inflation than industries able to shift costs off shore or achieve major savings by automation. This fact is captured in the so-called "higher education price index" (HEPI), which has increased by 43% over the past 10 years (or 62% faster than the consumer price index). Another factor is the understandable aspiration to improve the quality of the "product" we produce. During the past 10 years, for example, we reduced the student-per-faculty ratio from 11.3 to 10.3; we strengthened staff support for student life; and we built three new residence halls, renovated and expanded the biology building and student center, updated physics laboratories, constructed a concert hall, and created new spaces for academic departments, academic support, and technology in the Education Technology Center.

We did this largely through the magnificent generosity of individual donors, but also in the face of a dramatic reduction in financial support from government and other non-Reed sources. For example, 10 years ago Reed's institutional financial aid grants satisfied 64% of an average student's need. Today, that figure has grown to 81%.

Speaking of financial aid, it is also very important to keep in mind the difference between nominal tuition and average tuition. Over the past decade, the percentage of Reed students receiving scholarship awards has increased from 48% to 52%, and the average institutional grant per scholarship student has grown from $12,998 to $25,057. So, yes, our "sticker price" has grown rapidly, but what the average family pays has grown more slowly. Which brings me to the commission's second criticism ...

2. "[The] financial aid system is confusing, complex, inefficient, duplicative, and frequently does not direct aid to students who truly need it."

Here, I think, Reed has much to be proud of. Our financial aid policy is straightforward, consistently applied, and awards support only to students with demonstrated financial need. Unlike a growing number of our peers, we do not award "merit" scholarships to students without demonstrated financial need who are viewed to have special academic or extracurricular talents. This is one reason why Reed enrolls more low-income students than most of its peers. As reported in the Summer 2006 issue of Reed magazine, in academic year 2003-04, Reed's percentage of Pell Grant recipients (19%) compared favorably to schools like Oberlin (16%), Amherst (15%), Haverford (12%) Grinnell (12%), Carleton (11%), and Pomona (10%). We are not fully "need-blind" (in the sense that we have enough financial aid money to admit every applicant without considering financial circumstances), but we are making good progress, thanks in part to the completion of the recent $20 million financial aid initiative.

3. "We are disturbed by evidence that the quality of student learning at U.S. colleges and universities is inadequate and, in some cases, declining."

One piece of evidence cited by the Spellings Commission is a nationwide decline in graduation rates. At Reed, by contrast, the graduation rate continues to improve steadily. This past year, the six-year graduation rate reached 75%. Most of our peers have higher rates, but few have academic programs as rigorous and demanding or attract such independent-minded students. And the evidence available to us indicates that the vast majority of those who don't finish at Reed transfer to other schools from which they graduate successfully.

The Spellings Commission also laments a decline in the "reading, writing, and thinking skills we expect of college graduates." Although Reed has never cast itself as a center for "skill" training, its curriculum forces every student to develop writing, conceptual, communicative, and analytical proficiency. Almost no contemporary college or university requires a yearlong interdisciplinary, writing-intensive course like Humanities 110, or a yearlong tutorial/research project like the senior thesis. Almost no other institution tests the competency of its majors with the rigor of Reed's junior qualifying exam.

4. "We have found a remarkable shortage of clear, accessible information about crucial aspects of American colleges and universities . . . . Too many decisions . . . rely too heavily on reputation and rankings derived to a large extent from inputs such as financial resources rather than outcomes."

Reed's very visible rebellion against the U.S. News annual "beauty contest" securely positions us in agreement with the commission's critique of rankings. That satisfies the negative: the rejection of input-oriented, resource-dominated measures. But what about the positive: how should we be measured? Here, we don't have as crisp an answer as the commission demands. We agree that we should be measured by outcomes, by "value added," in current edu-speak. But how can that be measured? We are watching with interest the development of new instruments for measuring value added, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment test of critical thinking and the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress test of general educational knowledge. So far, we have not been persuaded that instruments like these provide effective and revealing measures of what we are trying to accomplish.

In the meantime, we do report several "outcome" measures in our literature and on our web site (including awards and distinctions, baccalaureate degrees by department, graduation rates, employment after Reed, medical school acceptance rates, Ph.D. productivity rates, and results of the senior survey). Beyond these measures, we evaluate every student comprehensively on two occasions-the junior qualifying examination, and the senior thesis. Furthermore, we evaluate ourselves comprehensively. The Committee on Advancement and Tenure evaluates every faculty member every two years; and every academic department and program is evaluated, both internally and externally, every 10 years. To be sure, none of these protocols is explicitly comparative or quantitative, but they do provide powerful incentives for all of us to stretch the limits of our capacity and a strong qualitative basis for testing our performance.

5. "Too many of our colleges and universities have not embraced opportunities to be entrepreneurial, from testing new methods of teaching and content delivery to meeting the increased demand for lifelong learning."

Reed may seem particularly vulnerable to this criticism, given the durability of its core curriculum and conference-method pedagogy. But in fact this commendable stability masks great changes over time. For example, the Spellings Commission faults American higher education for failing to produce a "globally literate citizenry." Whatever this term may mean, it would seem to me that Reed is increasingly doing its part. More than 100 courses listed in our catalog feature an explicit focus on non-American/non-European cultures and languages. Our number of foreign exchange programs has grown to 36, with 13 of these located in non-European nations. Likewise, the Spellings Commission laments the decline of science and mathematics in American universities. At Reed, the number of majors in science and mathematics has in fact declined slightly, from about 30% in the graduating classes of 1996-2000, to 27% in the graduating classes of 2001-05. Nonetheless, every student who graduates from Reed is still required to take two semesters of laboratory science, and approximately 96% of all graduates take at least one course with significant quantitative content. The commission also claims that "little of the significant research of the past decade in areas such as cognitive science, neurosciences, and organizational theory is making it into American classroom practice." Clearly the authors have never set foot in a Reed Psychology or Sociology classroom!

It's true that Reed does not hold itself out as a center for "lifelong learning." But we do formally educate a growing number of adults, including, last year, 53 students older than 23 in our baccalaureate degree program, 34 students in our Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, and 25 students in our Humanities in Perspective Program (sponsored by the Oregon Council for the Humanities). Beyond that, Reed is a regional center of culture and learning, offering dozens of lectures, exhibitions, and artistic performances attended by literally thousands of members from the Portland community.

* * * * *

As the Spellings Commission report illustrates, we in American higher education indeed "live in interesting times." On the one hand, we bask in unprecedented popularity - illustrated this year at Reed by records set in the number of freshman applications (3,054), the admission rate (just 40%), the yield rate on admission offers (31%), and the quantitative credentials of the entering class (mean 3.9 GPA and 1,375 combined verbal and mathematics SAT score). On the other hand, we hear an ever-louder chorus of criticism in the popular media and the halls of power. At Reed, our recent successes give us cause for great satisfaction. But the critiques remind us that we still have much to accomplish. We must keep moving in the direction of becoming truly need-blind in admission, so that we can provide access to every talented applicant, regardless of need. We must keep increasing the cultural, national, and socioeconomic diversity of our student body. We must be able to house a growing proportion of our students on campus. We must strengthen under-supported academic programs and departments such as Computer Science, Chinese, Linguistics, Theatre, Music, and Dance. We must continuously innovate in the teaching of language, introductory science, quantitative skills, writing, and research. We must keep increasing our retention and graduation rates. And we must continue to expand our visibility in the United States and around the world, as a model of liberal education at its very finest.


Colin S. Diver

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